Junior Guildhall Symphony Orchestra/Matthew Andrews at St John’s Smith Square – Dvořák 4, The Enchanted Lake, Romeo and Juliet

Dvořák
Symphony No.4 in D minor, Op.13
Liadov
The Enchanted Lake, Op.62
Prokofiev
Romeo and Juliet – Suite No.2, Op.64b

Junior Guildhall Symphony Orchestra
Matthew Andrews


Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 12 February, 2013
Venue: St John's, Smith Square, London

Matthew Andrews. Photograph: www.matthewandrews.netThere cannot have been many among the audience for this concert by the Junior Guildhall Symphony Orchestra who were familiar with Dvořák’s Fourth Symphony: indeed, some might even have thought that the old numbering of the latter five symphonies had been revived inadvertently and that what was to be heard was in fact Symphony No.8. But, no, it was indeed the Symphony in D minor that Dvořák composed early in 1874 and was first performed (certain sources suggest only the scherzo was played) in Prague that May conducted by Smetana. Revised 14 years later, the work has never been unknown as was the long-missing First Symphony or overlooked as has the rarely revived Second, but it has yet to enjoy the limited return to favour accorded the Third. If the present account does not further its rehabilitation, this will be no fault of the JGSO – for whose youth (the oldest players being 19) few allowances had to be made in what was a vibrant and assured reading of a piece that rises above its shortcomings in an unequivocal statement of intent.

The Fourth Symphony is indebted to Liszt and Wagner – not least in an initial Allegro, the ominous then combative first theme of which was vividly conveyed, with the strings then relishing the effortless lilt of its successor in an exposition whose repeat evinced no less momentum. The composer hardly makes things easy in a development that alternates these themes slightly too discursively before reaching its denouement, though the JGSO has the measure of its prolixity – as also of the stealthy transformed reprise and brusque fatalistic coda. The Andante then unfolds as a loosely defined sequence of variations on a theme whose contours and scoring (brass and woodwind) bring the ‘Pilgrim’s March’ from Tannhäuser to mind, yet Dvořák overcomes derivativeness with sustained expressive intensity and some heartfelt writing for lower strings that was eloquently realised here. The scherzo, too, had irresistible verve: hardly surprising that this is the most recognisable movement (used many years ago as the signature tune for the BBCTV series, The Expert, with Marius Goring), with its propulsive main theme as expertly rendered as the bracingly rustic trio with its extra percussion. If the finale is a little straitjacketed by the rhythm of its main theme, this account made the most of its vaunting energy and opened-out persuasively for the warm-hearted melody that comes headily to the fore in another of Dvořák’s varied reprises and which, in turn, makes way for a boisterously decisive coda. Whatever its unevenness, the Fourth Symphony gives ample notice of a composer on the brink on greatness and surely deserves to establish itself on the periphery of the repertoire as, during recent years, has Tchaikovsky’s First. All credit to Matthew Andrews for programming it and securing a focussed and confident response from his Junior Guildhall players.

After the interval, Liadov’sThe Enchanted Lake (1909) brought welcome repose, yet nothing is quite what it seems in an effortlessly realised piece that evokes far more than it states. Good, too, to have a composer-compiled Suite from Romeo and Juliet (1935) rather than the haphazard selection usually encountered: the JGSO brought implacability to ‘Montagues and Capulets’, wistful melancholy to ‘Juliet as a young girl’ and ruminative warmth to ‘Friar Laurence’, with the ‘Dance’ deftly rendered. ‘Romeo and Juliet before parting’ was at its best in the resigned closing pages – then, after a winsome ‘Dance of the girls with lilies’, the stark tragedy of ‘Romeo at Juliet’s Grave’ moved seamlessly to its ethereal conclusion.

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